December 2010

201012_revue1_300wrclogosm_noyearOne Tool to rule them all, One Tool to find them,
One Tool to bring them all and in the HT darkness bind them
In the Land of My Home Theater where the Shadows used to lie.

My apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien, but that’s what I thought when I first used the new Logitech Revue, the tool that finally makes sense of Google TV. Suddenly, we’ve taken a very big step forward in the everlasting war to integrate all the things people like to do at home. (Well, most of them.) At least I didn’t title this the Revue Review.

Google TV, in case you’re out of the loop, is software from the Google megalabs that is a frontal attack on Microsoft Windows 7 and anything else that’s intended to be a ubiquitous, all-encompassing computer operating system; i.e., one that will work with everything else in our lives that uses something like a computer (phones, tablets, appliances, cars, games, etc.). Whichever company wins that race to convergence will be quite powerful. Of course, governments generally don’t like to see so much power concentrated in a single area, unless it’s their own halls, but that’s another issue.

While Google has done a good job of jabbing away at Microsoft’s hegemony, when Google TV was announced, most pundits just scratched their heads and asked, "Why?" The Revue begins to make sense of the notion.

The Logitech Revue ($300 USD) is a two-piece system comprising an attractive gloss-black box and a lightweight but full-size keyboard that includes a mouse pad. Also integrated into it is Harmony remote-control technology. The Revue can control a TV, DVR, and home-theater preamplifier-processor or receiver.

The system is simplicity itself. All it requires is an HDMI cable in and another out, plus a wired or a wireless link to a broadband Internet connection. Setup takes just a few minutes and is brainlessly easy, unless you run into a problem with Internet connectivity (I didn’t), in which case you’d have to get some numbers from your network.

Logitech’s One Tool to rule them all ambitions had already driven them to buy Harmony. But they still needed some magic, and found it in agreements with Google TV and DISH Network (see later). The former provides a gateway to cloud computing, the latter two-way integration with all of DISH’s entertainment options, thus rescuing the Revue from the simple TV-plus-Web paradigm that has been widely rejected by consumers.

In fact, we don’t yet know what the Revue will ultimately be capable of because it’s an open-platform architecture. That means that app developers now have a new playground to gambol about in. It’s probably safe to say that none of us knows what the Revue’s best use will be even six months from now.

Despite Google’s generosity in developing and offering to us useful software for free, some pundits like to examine even the cheek teeth of gift horses. The New York Times’ David Pogue, a man usually as reliable as winter in December, missed the point of both Google TV and the Logitech Revue. He wrote, in the November 17th Times, that "The point of all this is to bring Web videos to your TV set." He went on to point out that "no matter how many times the industry tries to cram Web+TV down our throats, the masses just don’t swallow." Pogue even complained about the $300 price tag, dismissing the Revue as "steeply priced."

201012_revue2_300hI like Pogue’s writing very much, but we don’t see eye-to-eye on this. Here’s why I think the Logitech Revue is one of the great bargains in home theater.

A nice example: My dear wife got me an iPhone for Christmas. Of all the things it can do, its second most commonly used feature (after making and receiving phone calls) is one we never expected. I keep it beside us when we watch TV because of all the times we look at each other with a question that could be easily answered by using the iPhone to do a Google search. Where have we seen an actor before? What other movies has this director made? In what year did Astaire and Rogers part ways? How old was Miles Davis when he appeared in Scrooged? Anything.

I do the same in the morning when we read the paper. Gosh, honey, that’s interesting news about the Tuamotu Archipelago. Where is that again? Google Maps to the rescue. That damn Joe Scarborough must be lying. What was the repayment from GM? Let’s check CNBC. Such questions may seem trivial, but once you get used to having immediate answers, a lot more questions start to occur to you.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a simpler way of finding those answers? No matter how much I like the iPhone as a phone, its Internet capabilities will forever be stunted by the size of its screen and the slowness of using its keyboard. Couldn’t we have a handy keyboard that we could just type the question into and get an answer right there on the TV? Without stopping whatever’s on TV? Without having to turn off the TV or switch inputs on the receiver? Just type away and find the answer?

But wait -- what if my question about Miles generated an automatic search for any TV program with him in it that would be available during the next ten days? How about if you could then set the DVR to record the show with a single press of a button? Even better, what if the device also checked for Davis recordings on my DISH DVR and the honkin’ big hard drive attached to it? Wait! What if it checked my music collection for any and all recordings by Miles? What if it did all these things immediately, without my even having to formulate a question?

Interested yet?


Have you ever seen the wealth of Miles Davis clips on YouTube? Wouldn’t it be nice if we also got an automatic search for his videos there? Or maybe the question about Astaire and Rogers turned up a showing of Top Hat on Turner Classic Movies. Can’t remember which channel TCM is on? Just type TCM and it gives you a link straight away.

We all know the promise of picture-in-picture (PIP). It’s great for Sundays, when we might want to follow two games on two different channels at the same time. But that’s two of the same medium. What if you want to watch some hoops, maybe Boston vs. Miami. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to check stats on your fantasy team at the same time you’re watching the game?

And one last thing: Can we find a tool that’s so simple to use that the most technologically challenged person in your household could operate it with impunity?

The combo of the new Logitech Revue with Google TV and a DISH DVR hits all these targets with ease, and many more.

My wife is a good example. She often loves the TVs I review, but always hates learning how to operate them. Once she memorizes a remote control, she doesn’t want to have to learn another. She took one look at the Revue, and I immediately recognized her expression: Oh, no, not another thing to learn. But three days later she was insisting that I buy the Revue. She even asked me to mention to all technophobic spouses out there that the little time it takes to learn how to operate the Revue is time well spent. Now I don’t have to look for the keyboard. I just have to find Emily -- it will be with her. What’s more, she wants me to get a second one so I won’t bother her by occasionally asking to borrow it.

Here’s an interesting concept. While writing this article, my computer massively crashed. My wife was using her computer, so that left me without. Brainstorm! I used the Logitech Revue and Google Docs and was writing again in no time. Do we even need computers? I think there might be a few workarounds that would make them obsolete.

Is the Revue perfect? The Times’ David Pogue stated that the Revue is potentially "interesting to technophiles, but it’s not for average people," and that it "takes an enormous step in the wrong direction: toward complexity."

I entirely disagree. The best technology is simple to operate and keeps its complexity out of the spotlight. That doesn’t mean the technology itself isn’t complex. It means that the complexity is there for anyone bold enough to want to plunge below the surface.

In the world of music, the best synthesizers come with thousands of presets. These sounds are often designed by top musicians who have a scientist’s knowledge of how they work and an artist’s ear for beauty. Most buyers never go beyond the presets because they’re stone-simple to use and perfectly usable. On the other hand, artists are often interested in inventing their own block-rockin’ beats, and the tools are there.

Some sports cars offer transmissions that can act like a manual or an automatic, such as Ferrari’s road killer, the 599 GTB Fiorano F1. With its 0-62mph acceleration of a mere 3.3 seconds, top speed of 202mph, and V-12 engine, is it too complicated? Well, my mother-in-law could go get a gallon of milk in one, though she probably wouldn’t be testing its limits. It has crazy-powerful and complex technology, but it’s very simple to use. The $300 Revue is not in the same technological class as a $750,000 Ferrari, but you get the point: external simplicity, internal sophistication.

201012_revue4_300wBeyond all this, Logitech is upping the ante with the TV Cam ($150), an HD device for having a video conversation with anyone else who has a webcam. I know, boring -- everyone can do that. But here’s the fun difference: Each caller can tune in to a TV show, then make the phone call, and they can watch the show together. Think of what Brett Favre could have set up! More important, the TV Cam allows separated loved ones to spend some time enjoying together whatever entertainment drives their fancy. And Logitech informs me that the cost per minute, even for a connection to a far-off land like New Zealand, is $Zero.

DISH adds to the stake its Sling Adapter ($99), which connects you to TV Everywhere. It hooks into the DISH DVR and makes anything stored or playing on the DVR available to you anywhere in the world. All you need is a 3G or WiFi signal.

The Revue can also handle other wireless devices, which frees up your USB ports. You can even use your iPhone or Android to control it. Nor should those of you worry who don’t have a DISH DVR (my choice among all the possibilities). The Revue works with most any cable or satellite box. (They have a list on their website; check your model.) What you lose by using a box other than DISH’s is a little time. DISH is so integrated that many tasks can be accomplished with a single keystroke; other boxes might make you go through two or three strokes to complete the same task.

Within moments of installing the Revue, Emily and I were sold. The first thing to grab me was its range. We live in a big, spread-out Texas house, and no matter where I went in it, the Revue’s keyboard maintained a strong connection to the base station. The commands are easy to learn, and whoever designed the GUI has a brilliant sense of adornment without overstatement. Everything is easy to find, and once you feel confident about what you want and don’t want, you can edit out unneeded buttons or categories.

Do we really need all this? It’s not as if plenty of entertainment options aren’t already available to us. But I don’t think the Revue should be looked at as a mere entertainment option. Instead, it’s a seamless way to integrate all of our entertainment options.

One night, rather than just cozy in with a movie, Emily and I decided to search out anything we could find about Beat Generation icon Neal Cassady, and especially the years he spent with author and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey. We read, watched, listened. A lot of what we found came from YouTube, but we also found photos, articles, book excerpts -- even a link to a very nice documentary, The Jazz Baroness. The story of Pannonica Rothschild (aka Nica), this was a serendipitous finding -- not the greatest film ever made, but one I’m so happy to have seen. I wouldn’t have found it without the Revue and Google TV.


Then we went to on to some of our favorite jazz singers, folks who are unfortunately somewhat unknown to the general public -- which was what made finding all the clips of Mark Murphy, Blossom Dearie, and Jackie & Roy so much fun. I even found an obscurity from the 1980s that I loved then but hadn’t seen in years. In fact, the (apparently) fourth-generation low-speed VHS-sourced copy video of "What About Me" by the Moving Pictures looked just as bad now via YouTube over a top-quality JVC projector as the original version had looked back in 1981, watching MTV broadcast from the wretched OnTV over my decidedly low-def big-screen Sony 7220 projector. It was so nostalgic.

Speaking of Sony, they’re hedging their bets. Up till now, their PlayStation 3 has been my favorite media integrator. But now they’re offering a TV and a Blu-ray player with the Google TV technology. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google TV fitted into the PS3 sooner rather than later.

In any case, we’re finally getting the opportunity to easily integrate all media. The Logitech Revue makes possible the ultimate couch potato scenario: Push the little magnifying-glass button, type in whatever grabs you, and away you go down the rabbit hole of breathtaking multimedia convergence.

For $300, and given the joy it delivers, the Revue is a steal -- and the perfect Christmas gift. If I seem a little breathless in my excitement, regular readers will know that I’ve been barnstorming for just such a device for ten years now -- a device that makes possible control, throughout the entire house, of every form of media we have. Finally, it’s here.

. . . Wes Marshall

Model: Logitech Revue
Price: $300 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Logitech Inc.
6505 Kaiser Drive
Fremont, CA 94555
Phone: (800) 231-7717
Fax: (510) 713-4780